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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Ultra Humanite

When we streamed X-Men: First Class in our living room the other night, we roped our fourteen-year-old daughter into watching too. My wife promised cute guys. So it’s not surprising that Madeleine noticed first:

“Wait, are they gay?”

She meant Magneto and Professor X and, wow, was she right.

In retrospect, their first meeting (a passionate underwater hug) should have been a clue. I didn’t see it till the shot of Chuck and Eric nuzzled shoulder to shoulder in the strip joint bed. Madeleine got it when they were gazing at each other across a chessboard with the, um, Empire State Building in the background. Apparently Wolverine smelled it too. When the two ubermutants saddle up to him in a bar, he spells it out: “Go fuck yourself.”

Oh, I think they are.

Even without the gay rights subtext (when Charles accidentally outs Hank McCoy, the mutant tells his C.I.A. employer: “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”), the air was already thick with bromance.

Before the release, actor James McAvoy (Charles) promised a “kind of love story, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which, really, was a love story between two men.” The difference is that Redford (or was Newman “Butch”?) got a sappy love montage riding a bicycle with his very heterosexual love interest. 1969 was not a year to come out of the Brokeback closet.

Charles and Erik pay some minimal attention to women (Charles has a couple of lazy pick-up lines, and Erik solidifies Mystique’s allegiance with an off-camera consummation), but their real passion is for each other. Erik cradling the crippled Charles in his arms says it all. “I want you by my side.”

Once they break up, both instantly sublimate into new and wholly heterosexual channels. Charles and his C.I.A. contact were Platonic before he pecks her on the lips and strips her memory (the ultimate rufie?). Erik is more blatant when he springs the comically underdressed Emma Frost from a C.I.A. holding tank.

“Where’s your telepath friend?” she asks.

“Gone. Left a bit of a gap in my life if I’m to be honest. I was rather hoping you would fill it.”

The last actor to play Magneto would have gone further. For his third and last X-Men movie, Ian McKellen wanted the camera to discover him and Patrick Stewart (a sexier, albeit balder Charles than McAvoy’s) in the throes of a sex scene. Bryan Singer might have gone along with it (both he and McKellen are gay), which could also explain why Fox handed control of X-Men: The Last Stand to a different director.

But Charles and Erik are not the first superpowered frenemies with benefits. It was the subtext of the arch rival since its comic book conception.

Superman faced down his first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, back in 1939. Like Professor X, Ultra is a bald, wheelchair-bound super-genius. Creator Jerry Siegel retconned him into the first dozen Action Comics as the secret mastermind behind all those garden variety crimes Superman so effortlessly ended. The Man of Steel needed an opponent on his own playing field.

As McAvoy says about Magneto and Professor X: “This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too.”

Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger exploited the same, not-so-subtle sexual subtext with Catwoman.  Simply “The Cat” in her first 1940 appearance, she attempts to seduce Batman after he captures her: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me! You and I TOGETHER!” (Robin is conveniently looking away during the embrace.)

Though tempted, Batman refuses. But he also lets his favorite feline escape. “Lovely girl! What eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime.” (We can discuss Robin’s jealous reaction elsewhere.)

Siegel understood the subtext too. Perhaps too well. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife Marguerite, Lois Lane is the one antagonist always on the verge of discovering Superman’s secret. But Superman had an even bigger breasted threat.

After Ultra’s first four appearances (and second apparent death) the original comic book nemesis returned.  As a woman. Superman recognizes his arch rival in the “blazing eyes” of screen star Delores Winters.

“You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look—as you can see, I’m very much alive!”

And very much female in that tight, red, spaghetti-strap dress Joe Shuster sketches for her/him. How is such a villainous transformation possible!

“My assistants, finding my body, revived me . . .  and following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”

From all the bodies on the planet, Ultra chooses to become a famously gorgeous film actress. That’s not a metaphor. The guy is transsexual.

Superman continues to call the post-operative Ultra/Delores “he,” but even when Shuster draws Delores’ body in trousers, she’s still all woman. In Ultra’s next (and last adventure), the villain(ess) even uses his feminine wiles to seduce an atomic scientist (“The fool!”).

The gender bender proved too much for Siegel and/or his DC editors. Veiled homosexuality is one thing. An explicitly transgendered supervillain is another. The solution? A not-yet-bald Lex Luthor replaces Ultra in the next episode.

And so the bromance continues . . .

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